Harbin, China: Home to the perfect international winter experience

Photo by Lintao Zhang/Getty Images
Photo by Lintao Zhang/Getty Images /

While many holiday goers seek adventure during the summer months, the city of Harbin, China is home to arguably the perfect experience for the winter.

From December to February, people across the northern hemisphere enjoy the experiences of winter wonderlands, ski trips, and, especially in places such as the far northeastern city of Harbin, China (哈尔滨市), Heilongjiang Province, China, snow and ice sculpture festivals.

Since its early origins in 1963, the Harbin International Snow & Ice Sculpture Festival has been held annually since January 1985 has grown to become a truly spectacular event that must be seen in person to truly appreciate.

Set across two locations, covering an area of around 80 hectares, the International Snow & Ice Sculpture Festival lasts for around two months every year, with an official opening on 5th January every year – with the final day usually coming on the final day of February.

It is a popular tourist destination already and is viewed as the main attraction in the city of Harbin every year, with an estimated 10 to 15 million people making the trip out to either Sun Island or Ice and Snow World to experience snow and ice sculptures seen sparsely across the world.

Sun Island, located on the opposite side of the Songhua River (松花江), the source of all ice used in the festival, to the city, hosts an expo where large-scale, intricately detailed snow sculptures can be seen from artists from across China and abroad.

Harbin Ice and snow festival
HARBIN, CHINA – JANUARY 05: Fireworks set off above the ice sculptures illuminated by coloured lights at Harbin ice and snow world during the opening ceremony of the 36th Harbin International Ice and Snow Festival on January 5, 2020 in Harbin, Heilongjiang Province, China. The Ice and Snow World Park will host the 36th Harbin International Ice and Snow Sculpture Festival from January 5 until the end of February. (Photo by Lintao Zhang/Getty Images) /

The expo is a particularly popular attraction during the day, but the Ice and Snow World, sitting in an adjacent location on Sun Island, maybe even more spectacular at night.

While it is open all day, one of the highlights of the ice sculptures viewable in the ‘main’ location of the festival, is seeing the vivid lights turned on, lighting up all sculptures from within, casting a beautiful view in the wintery darkness, where temperatures often drop to around  -25°C (–13°F).

The festival has been a mainstay for almost 40 years in Harbin and, in recent years, the shows have focused on a number of themes to encourage new and unique sculptures to be presented, with a special ‘charming Harbin’ theme for the festival’s 30th anniversary in 2014.

Seven years earlier, in 2007, a special Canada theme was used to honor Norman Bethune, a doctor who spent his final years serving the Mao Zedong communists in the late 1930s – with the future leader of the People’s Republic publishing a eulogy for Bethune around a month after his death in 1939.

Harbin ice and snow festival
HARBIN, CHINA – JANUARY 03: Tourists visit the Harbin International Snow Sculpture Art Expo on January 3, 2020 in Harbin, China. Harbin Ice Sculpture Festival is one of the highlights of the tour, attracts domestic and foreign tourists to visit. (Photo by Lintao Zhang/Getty Images) /

The main attractions of the festival are, of course, the sculptures. Over 10,000 workers are purported to work on sculpting the detailed designs each year, with large blocks of ice forming buildings, animals, religious symbols, and many more.

Cafes are available for when the biting, dry winter air forces people to seek shelter for a quick coffee or milk tea, with large glass windows giving visitors a beautiful scenic view of the park that allows you to take a moment to admire the sheer size and detail of the sculptures.

Tickets to the event will set you back 330RMB ($48.75, £37.70), but if anyone finds themselves in Harbin in the middle of winter, then it is a must-see. For people that enjoy wintery trips, then your number of photos and beautiful sights that you will see during the festival makes it worth it.

Before and after the festival, a trip around the city of Harbin itself can be an experience worth taking in itself – with a unique clash of Russian and Chinese architecture dotted throughout the city and the dongbei/northeastern (东北) barbecue culture, with grilled spiced meat kebabs known locally as chuan’er (串儿) extremely popular and cheap.

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If you are looking for a new experience during the winter months, then a trip to the Harbin International Snow & Ice Sculpture Festival is something well worth considering, with plenty of opportunities to take some great photos and witness more than a month’s worth of work come to life in spectacular, large-scale sculptures.